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Read like a writer

Learn the art of "x-ray reading" to better your own writing.

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How do you learn to read like a writer? One way, argues Roy Peter Clark, is through “The Art of X-Ray Reading,” which happens to be the title of his new book. He describes X-ray reading as a form of close reading that looks beneath the surface of the text for the sources of writing power. Think of it as a form of reverse engineering used to discover the writing strategies invisible to the average reader.

The subtitle of Clark’s book is “How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.” To test his theory, Clark volunteered to X-ray a selection of remarkable sentences submitted by the editorial staff and readers of The Writer magazine. These submissions turned out to be different in several ways: from length to tone to content. But all were “showstoppers,” the kind of sentence that makes a reading writer pause and appreciate.





“Each time the man yelled and cracked his whip, there was a rippling of wood and leather and iron as the chains fastened to the house snapped tight and each successive pair of oxen strained into the weight of the house and the building ground forward an inch or two, its windows rattling, its frame vibrating, and then the man with the whip yelled, Take yeere rest dogs, and the sixteen animals stopped pulling all at once, as if they were a circus act.”

—From Tinkers by Paul Harding. Submitted by Constance G. Bullard.



Roy Peter Clark: Constance Hale wrote a good book about verbs. She could have harvested this sentence as evidence. Underline the verbs in the active voice: yelled, cracked, snapped, strained, ground, stopped. A tremendous amount of energy is harnessed in a single sentence, but the author makes it work. Notice also the startling variations in camera angles. If this scene were a movie, we’d have a moderate close-up on the man, still closer as we focused on wood, leather, and chains. The camera would pull back to see rows of oxen straining. Switch now to the bottom of the house grinding across the ground. Pull back to see the whole house and the effects of the action. Back to the man. Then to the 16 animals at rest. All in a single sentence. I love writing that moves.






“Back in 1965, on a day so hot that God Almighty should have been writhing with sick-to-the-stomach guilt over driving His children out of the cool green of Eden, my daddy walked into our general store, held a revolver to his head, told my mama that he couldn’t take any more and that because of her harsh way and his many sins he was going to blow his brains out. “

—From Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler. Submitted by Gale Massey.


RPC: But he has not blown his brains out yet; he just tells his wife he is going to. We see here a pattern so familiar that we must recognize it as an indispensable tool of writers: Save the most dramatic element until the end of a sentence or a paragraph. The period is a stop sign. A period followed by the white space of a paragraph’s end acts as a stoplight. Any word or phrase that sits before the period or white space will receive special attention. Before we get to that threat, a lot of interesting choices are being made: the tension between the heat of the day and the coolness of Eden; the cruelty of the God the Father against the violence of daddy; all the consequences of the loss of innocence. I admire a writer who can evoke an archetype such as the Edenic myth without making a symbol sound like a cymbal.






“But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

—From On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Submitted by Michael Slagle.


RPC: A couple of years ago, in an art shop near Atlanta, I bought a stylized image of Jack Kerouac with a typewriter in the background and the phrase, in yellow, “burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding.” We can see that quote as an excerpt from a longer sentence from On the Road. Kerouac wrote furiously on rolls of copy paper that furled and unfurled as they hit the floor. Truman Capote argued that that was typing, not writing. If you write as if on speed on rolls of paper, your sentences are more likely to run long in what might seem like an undisciplined flood of language. But there is art here. Consider the neologism “dingledodies,” coined by Kerouac to describe the weirdos who crash and burn. Here is repetition for rhythm and not redundancy: first “the mad ones” and then the triple “burn.” All that energy rumbling toward an ejaculation of fireworks and a collective sigh of orgasmic appreciation: Awww!



“In your heart, in your bones, no matter how silly you know it is, you feel that everything has been leading to this, all the secret arrows were pointing here, the universe and time itself crafted this long ago, and you are just now realizing it, you are just now arriving at the place you were always meant to be.”

—From Every Day by David Levithan. Submitted by Karen Hubbard.

RPC: This sentence seems almost miraculous to me: seven clauses in 60 words. The language is simple. The only concrete words are “heart,” “bones,” and “arrows,” fleeting metaphors, nothing we can actually see. It gains altitude, rather than particularity, with words such as “everything,” “pointing here,” “the universe and time,” “now realizing,” “now arriving,” “meant to be.” Let’s offer praise to the humble comma. It helps organize the sentence into eight sections, each one of which we can understand before invited to move on to the next.





“But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal Holcomb noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.”

—From In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Submitted by Keith Sharon.


RPC: I draw two simple lessons from this sentence. 1) The importance of capturing sounds, not just visuals, in setting a scene. I can hear the keening of coyotes, the onomatopoetic scrape and scuttling of tumbleweed, and the alliterative wail of train whistles. 2) Three is the largest number in literature. When an author gives you three examples of something, as Capote does here, he is telling you all he knows, and wants you to know.






“He was quick and ready in the things of life, but only in the things and not in their meanings.”

—From “To Build a Fire” by Jack London. Submitted by Glenda Rynn.


RPC: Jack London precedes Hemingway as an author and anticipates him. He uses simple, common words to reveal something about human experience. Part of the pleasure of X-ray reading – that is, reading like a writer – are the surprising discoveries inside a sentence. Just by looking at the sentence, you see the comma divides it in half. Count the words. Go ahead. Ten before the comma, ten after. That kind of balance forces you to hold two ideas in your brain (or your two hands) at once. That conjunction “but” serves as the fulcrum of the see saw. On one end sits “things of life,” on the other “their meanings.”






“By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) – Gandalf came by.”

From The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Submitted by Dean Crawford.


RPC: A great sentence by a great author that illustrates a narrative technique in both film and fiction. Robert McKee refers to it as the “inciting incident,” that moment in time when a normal day is transformed by a bolt from the blue. The phrase “curious chance” hints at something unusual to come, but the front end of the sentence is dominated by the normal pleasures of the Shire – if normal can apply to an imagined creature called a hobbit. Check out the diction of peace and harmony: morning, quiet, green, numerous, prosperous, breakfast. The name Bilbo Baggins has an alliterative lilt to it. The long wooden pipe and wooly toes characterize Bilbo as a member of a particular tribe. All of that serves as prologue. Life will change forever with the uttering of the three last words: “Gandalf came by.” Apply it to your real world: It was a beautiful morning and I had just finished my Cheerios, enjoying my first smoke of the day, when this tall, ancient wizard stopped by to see me.






“I am haunted by waters.”

From “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean. Submitted by Giancarlo Ghedini and Lyman Barry. 


RPC: Ah, a shorty! Five words, seven syllables, almost like the middle line of a haiku. A great writing lesson hides in this sentence. It concerns the unappreciated power of the passive voice. Writers say they much prefer the active, where the subject performs the action of the verb. We could convert Maclean’s sentence to the active, but it would give us: “Waters haunt me.” The economy of those three words cannot account for what is lost. The subject “I” gets emphasis by being first. That subject is not an agent or a player, is not active syntactically or in real life. He is the receiver of a powerful verb “is haunted.” The passive requires a “by” phrase to indicate the doer; here it allows the author to place the emphatic word last “waters.” The word “haunted” inhabits the sentence, like a ghost in the House of Usher. Here almost all the dictionary meanings apply: to inhabit, visit, like a ghost; to frequent; to obsess; to pervade.






“On a sunny day in a sunny humor I could sometimes think of death as mere gossip, the ugly rumor behind that locked door over there.”

From The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father by Geoffrey Wolff. Submitted by Sue Anne Linde.


RPC: I am a word person, not a numbers person, but, sometimes, to figure out a sentence, I begin by counting the words. I count 26 words. (I will leave counting the letters and syllables for another day.) This reveals that the phrase “of death” is smack dab in the middle: words 13 and 14. In most cases, writers use the middle to hide things, preferring the beginning and ending as points of emphasis. Here the key phrase serves as a hinge, distinguishing the carefree language that precedes it (sunny, sunny, humor) with the darkness that follows (gossip, ugly, rumor, behind, locked door).






“I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory.”

From Eva Luna by Isabel Allende. Submitted by Ann Davenport.


RPC: This is a good sentence to compare with the next one by Poe. Both contain images of stifling melancholy. Poe’s words describe the darkness of the natural world. Allende emphasizes the contents of a “shadowy house,” which include old, old things: ancient furniture, books in Latin (a dead language), and human mummies. (By the way, she uses three examples, a standard choice if you are trying to encompass the whole.) The narrator is saying, in effect, that I came to life in the midst of almost dead things. All of those cobwebs are dusted away by a single phrase, “a breath of jungle.” The jungle is both the antidote to and the opposite of everything in that house that is decaying into dust.






“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”

From “Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. Submitted by Angela Deschesne.


RPC: This sentence suggests the importance of the word “diction,” the collective effect of a series of individual word choices. It does not surprise us that Poe does not use the word “cherub” here, or “dandelion,” or “razzmatazz.” This is a Gothic vision of mood and place and, in a single sentence, he lines up his word troops to convey it: dull, dark, soundless, autumn, clouds, hung, oppressively, low, alone, dreary, shades, melancholy. Poe had “summer” at his disposal; “autumn” fit the mood. This is what I call a journey sentence: a long sentence that reflects the experience of traveling narrator. The sentence, like the rider, reaches the destination at the end: the House of Usher.






“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

From The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Submitted by Jeffrey Morris.

RPC: J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn his narration over to a prep-school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation. This is a carefully constructed text, but it doesn’t sound that way. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll”; “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Salinger had a great ear for the spoken word and captures the idioms of his time in phrases such as “how my parents were occupied” and “if you want to know the truth.” A double-edged razor hides in both phrases. The first one could mean “what my parents did for a living,” but “occupied” carries with it some negative connotations, as in the word preoccupied.


The second phrase, about truth, is used mostly as filler in conversation, yet the key word, truth, comes at the end, raising the question of whether Holden is a reliable narrator of his own life story. My favorite phrase here is “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” Note the alliteration, the repetition of hard c sounds. Perhaps Holden sees himself as a Dickensian character, like David Copperfield, who experiences an endless series of traumatic events in his young life. Or perhaps the reclusive author is sending a secret signal: just as David Copperfield is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, Catcher contains, we now know, many parallels to the young life of J.D. Salinger.






“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.”

From Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Submitted by Katy Yocom.


RPC: This is a beautiful sentence that we might punctuate differently in the 21st century. I’d be tempted to replace that semicolon with a colon. The semicolon signals a half-separation, what I call a “swinging gate.” The colon is more of an announcer: I’m about to tell you something significant: Ta da! The alliteration and sibilance of “subtleness of the sea” suggests the rhythm and sound of the sea itself. What follows is a study in contrast, scary words bumping into lovely words. In the first bump, “dreaded creatures” meets “glide under water.” In the second, “treacherously hidden” leads to “tints of azure.” The best word in the sentence, “azure,” comes at the end.






“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Submitted by Denise C. Buschmann.


RPC: Who could not admire a sentence with such a clear demarcation of beginning, middle, and end? Thank you, commas. Only a single word – neighbor – has more than one syllable. Austen gives us 19 words that add up to 67 letters, an astonishing efficiency of fewer than four letters per word. But this math is invisible to the meaning. She begins by asking what at first seems like a metaphysical question: “For what do we live?” The social commentary that follows brings us crashing to earth in a phrase and carries us home with a delicious sense of revenge, a kind of sophisticated punch line.






“The functional disenchantment, the sweet habit of each other had begun to put lines around her mouth, lines that looked like quotation marks – as if everything she said had already been said before.”

From “Agnes of Iowa” by Lorrie Moore. Submitted by Karen Gray.


RPC: This sentence made me laugh, with its use of a form of punctuation as a simile to describe the character lines of a human face. There is a lovely movement of language and thought here, beginning with a great abstraction (“functional disenchantment”), drawing evidence from those facial lines, describing them through the simile of quotation marks, and then extending that figure into an analogy that signals physical and emotional exhaustion. That sound you don’t hear is me applauding.






“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

From The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Submitted by Rhonda Franz.


RPC: Like other much-honored authors – Cormac McCarthy comes to mind – Tartt is happy to leave anticipated punctuation waiting in the wings. To avoid the run-on, I would tuck a comma after “melting.” But snow in the mountains has a kind of run-on or run-off effect that would turn my comma into a boulder. I loved the clause “Bunny had been dead” just because that name and that mortal condition don’t feel right together, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A final reward comes with “the gravity of our situation.” Gravity connects with snow falling off the mountain. It’s a synonym for seriousness, and even has “grave” in it.







“He knew that when he kissed this girl and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.”

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Submitted by Stephen Turner.


RPC: X-raying this sentence is like pinning a Monarch butterfly to a corkboard. I want to appreciate it without destroying its mystery and beauty. There are lots of phrases that are embedded in others, which add to the sentence’s complexity. I see four verbs at work: knew, kissed, wed, and romp. A man kisses the girl of his dreams and inhales her breath. But that breath is “perishable,” a word that portends his and her mortality, a word that we use for stuff we buy at a grocery story. He has a vision, but it is “unutterable,” which denotes “unspeakable” in both the sense that he cannot form it into words, but also that it is so terrible, it cannot be spoken. Gatsby’s mind “romps” like the “mind of God,” a surprising and thrilling juxtaposition. When things become real, rather than imagined, they lose their luster.





Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, one of the most prestigious schools for journalists in the world. He has taught writing at every level – to schoolchildren and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors – for almost 40 years. A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited 18 books on writing and journalism, including Writing Tools, How to Write Short, Help! for Writers, and The Glamour of Grammar. He still plays keyboard in a rock band. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.







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